‘The city that tamed the car’
Alighting at Groningen Railway Station one afternoon in sunny June, the first thing I saw was bicycles. In fact layers upon layers of bicycles, racked up in an innovative multi-level cycle storage system. This profusion of bicycle related phenomena extended out into the city, I saw children running barefoot along cycle paths, swathes of silent cyclists floating past quiet suburban houses, and students maneuvering furniture home on Ikea cargo bikes. This University city, with its post-war housing around a medieval centre, is eerily similar in some ways to areas of the U.K, but instead of cars roaring past the station, it is waves and waves of bicycles, and the difference is startling.
Groningen, the city that tamed the car, shows how vehicles can be gradually removed from a city centre and the dominance of the car chipped away at until bicycles rule the streets. An incremental process, this has been achieved through a series of planning decisions that have worked with the growth of the city to gradually confine cars to areas outside the centre. In 1977, this central region of Groningen was divided into four quadrants with a central border impassable by cars, making it impossible to drive through the centre of the city. This decision was made in recognition that the heart of the city, it’s medieval centre and pedestrianised surrounds, actually functioned as a ‘living room’, and thus should be protected under a policy of ‘filtered permeability’. As illustrated by my study of Houten, this paradigm of transport planning favours human-powered transport over motor vehicles by selectively reducing the number of city centre streets that are accessible to cars. Journeys that are relatively easy by bike therefore, become arduous and convoluted to undertake by car. The result is a city which has the highest rate of cycling in the world: Nearly 60% of all journeys are made by bicycle, and the crosstown traffic consists entirely of bicycles. 1
But this wasn’t achieved without opposition, and without facing the necessary doubts from the community. The idea of removing cars from the city provoked a strong antagonism from local businesses, who considered that their economic survival depended on the ability of people to park close to their front door. As Dutch politician Van den berg writes, “Many people who lived in the old neighbourhoods were enthusiastic about our ideas. They saw we were changing things on a great scale. But there was also fierce opposition, especially from businessmen and shopkeepers who were convinced it would mean the end of their business if cars could no longer cross the centre. We tried to explain that we wanted to create a pleasant urban environment that eventually would attract more people to the centre and to their shops. But they were convinced they would go bankrupt if customers would not be able reach their shop by car” 2. The overcoming of this opposition, and the discrediting of the underlying idea, makes Groningen a positive example of ‘bikenomics’; a demonstration of the profitability of urban cycling.
Shopkeepers actually found that the new cycle routes allowed for a greater number of people to pass in close proximity to their premises, and that these people were also far more likely to stop and spend, especially as they were burning more calories. As a minimum of 20 cyclists can fit into a regular parking space, 4 car visitors became 20 potential cyclist arrivals. This freeing up of space also had the consequence of liberating car-parking areas and allowing them to regain their historical function; parking spaces became market places, roads became vibrant streets, and the city centre was transformed from a ‘corridor’ to a ‘living room’.
This case study illustrates how it is possible to gradually over time tip the balance of power in favour of the bicycle across a city, through considering networks of transport across a city as an integrated whole. As to some extent bicycles and cars are capable of performing the same function, cycling cannot be fully encouraged as a daily, reliable mode of transport, without to some extent discouraging the use of the car. There is room only for one main mode of transportation. This doesn’t mean eliminating car use entirely, but restricting it, and ensuring that cars are primarily used for the longer, out-of-centre journeys to which they are more suited. Such an approach has meant that levels of cycling still continue to rise in Groningen. With an average of 1.4 bicycles per person3 there are far more bicycles than people in Groningen, and innovative solutions have arisen to cater for the storage of these bikes at main transport hubs. The multi-level system at Groningen can store 6500, which is about one for every 30 residents of the city. This includes a portion of guarded parking, for scooters and more expensive cycles. A system for equivalent numbers of cars would require vast amounts of space.
Groningen station, after redevelopment / Image from basmeelker.nl
This in turn has positive effects for the rest of the city, and we see that the compact form of the bicycle, as a small transport unit, allows the form of the city to shape itself for the benefit of its citizens, rather than the car. An example of this is at Groningen train station, which is nestled between a river and the busy urban centre. Given the space restrictions which this creates, the compactness afforded by bicycles as the dominant mode of transport allows for a tighter integration of the station with the urban fabric. Passengers do not arrive onto a sea of cars, as is the case at so many UK railway stations, but are able to immediately orientate themselves visually in the city on arrival. This shows how the presence of the bicycle, rather than the car, has a domino effect that helps the city to become more liveable generally, even for those who don’t cycle.
1. Hembrow, David. 2009. A view from the cycle path [Accessed 10/07/16]
2. Berg, Van der. (2015). How Groningen invented a cycling template for cities all over the world [Accessed 10/07/16]
3. Daggers, Ton. (2015). Groningen. The World’s Cycling City [Accessed 10/07/16]